Exploring the legacy of Jack Sholder’s controversial horror sequel
Freddy’s Revenge. Anyone familiar with the A Nightmare on Elm Street series will surely recognise Jack Sholder’s 1985 sequel as something of an outlier, as a film that seems to divide opinion like no other instalment. New Line Cinema’s first sequel has become a quirky footnote in the series for reasons I will explore, and films with that kind of reputation usually divide opinion, derided by some and achieving diehard cult status among others. There are a plethora of reasons why Freddy’s Revenge has achieved such status in some circles, not least the plight of its lead actor, Mark Patton, who would fade into obscurity shortly after a film that should have been his big break. Patton was excellent as the film’s ‘final boy’ Jesse Walsh, the character’s struggles with sexual identity mirrored by the actor’s real-life struggles as a homosexual actor in a notoriously homophobic environment like Hollywood. The fact that the AIDS epidemic was at an all-time high during the mid-1980s certainly didn’t help in that regard.
Patton, the self-proclaimed victim of “fag-bashing” from Freddy’s Revenge writer David Chaskin, would quit the industry following a critical backlash that became highly publicised, the subsequent fallout, and the negative impact it would have on Patton’s career going forward. A film like Freddy’s Revenge was the death knell for someone like Patton in such a sensitive sexual climate. It was commonplace for celebrities to mask their homosexuality back then, particularly in industries that put such an emphasis on sexuality, and a movie labelled “the gayest horror film ever made” by gay publication The Advocate would result in unwanted attention for an actor who had always been advised to remain firmly in the closet. Patton, who was diagnosed with HIV after turning 40, has since come to terms with Freddy’s Revenge and the fandom it would ultimately generate, a fact explored in the 2019 documentary Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, in which Patton is able to find a degree of closure, though his relationship with Chaskin will likely always be strained.
Tackling the hysteria surrounding the AIDS epidemic was a novel and socially relevant idea back in 1985, and no character personified the disease quite like Fred Krueger, an elusive monster who thrived on the very essence of fear, but mainstream society wasn’t ready to be confronted with such issues under the guise of escapist entertainment, a fact New Line executives would ultimately realise. Chaskin was quick to pass the buck, blaming the controversy on Patton’s overtly effeminate performance rather than a screenplay that was laced with gay subtext, something he was quick to refute. Sholder would also dodge responsibility, claiming to have not noticed anything even remotely gay about Freddy’s Revenge. “I feigned ignorance,” he wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News. “My movie was being outed and I didn’t know how I felt about that.” Chaskin would also claim that he was, “questioned by a couple of [New Line] execs who were genuinely quite surprised by the review and palpably worried about how it might affect box office,” which hints at a concerted effort on their part to suppress the whole issue. It would certainly make sense from a business perspective.
Jesse Walsh: Hey, Grady, do you remember your dreams?
Ron Grady: Only the wet ones.
In hindsight, it’s ludicrous to suggest that Freddy’s Revenge was not a commentary on sexuality and the AIDS epidemic, and the word subtext, defined as ‘an underlying and often distinct theme in a piece of writing or conversation’, seems like a downplayed interpretation of what we see onscreen. The gay element is so overt and in your face it’s impossible to miss. The relationship between Jesse and Krueger is teeming with sexual tension and innuendo, as is the relationship between our protagonist and Robert Rusler’s Grady, the pair’s ‘bromance’ occasionally flirting with something more. There’s Jesse’s infamous dance, shots of his sweaty torso, a sadomasochistic gym teacher and the kind of suggestive dialogue that smacks you on the butt with a wet towel. In one scene, Jesse turns up at Grady’s house and asks if he can keep an eye on him in case anything strange occurs. “I’m scared, Grady. Something is trying to get inside my body,” Jesse tells him. “Yeah, she’s female and she’s waiting for you in the cabana, and you wanna sleep with me?!” Grady replies. Gay subtext? In my movie?! Never!
It’s easy to see why Freddy’s Revenge has garnered such a cult following. People love an outsider, and for those with a penchant for the 80s, it doesn’t get more 80s than this movie. There are plenty more reasons to like it too. Krueger, who takes on an almost feral look thanks to future Child’s Play makeup artist Kevin Yagher and his crew, has perhaps never been scarier. It also features some wonderful moments of practical effects artistry, the moment where Freddy pulls back his flesh to reveal his brain certainly one to remember. “You’ve got the body. I’ve got the brain,” Krueger informs his chosen incubator in what is arguably the movie’s most sexually tense scene. Then there’s Grady’s death, one of the absolute finest in the series. The kill in question, one that sees Grady pinned to his bedroom door by Krueger’s claw, is great in itself, but the true pièce de résistance arrives just prior, the moment when our horrifically scarred monster sheds Jesse’s skin like a silk gown still a jaw-dropping sight to behold. The best thing about Freddy’s Revenge is Patton himself, who gives the finest performance of the entire series as far as the Elm Street kids go, and that includes original final girl Heather Langenkamp.
There is also the wonderful Robert Englund to consider, who almost didn’t appear in the movie at all. New Line, who figured any bozo in a mask could play Freddy, initially went with a cheaper option until quickly realising that the actor and the character were inseparable. The sadistic cackle, the gunslinger stance, the devilish nuances and wicked sense of wit that make him such a commercial draw, are further refined as Englund grows into the role, oozing malevolence as Elm Street’s perennial scourge. The poolside massacre is probably his highlight here, but the movie excels whenever Freddy is onscreen. Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees have been played by various actors and stuntmen throughout the years, and some of them were able to capture the essence of those characters quite beautifully, but Englund turns a corner with his portrayal of Krueger. Even when the series descended into youth-oriented silliness, he rarely missed a beat.
Those who who see Freddy’s Revenge as something of a missed opportunity generally do so based on it’s dramatic digression from Craven’s original vision. It’s unsurprising. When A Nightmare on Elm Street was released in 1984, the slasher sub-genre, way past its Golden Age peak and running into all kinds of trouble with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the British Film Board of Classification (BBFC), respectively, was given a new lease of life by a supernatural story that saw a former child killer, burned to death by a mob of vengeful parents, return from the dead to stalk their kids in their dreams. There’s nothing more personal and isolating than a person’s dreams, which made Krueger an entirely different kind of threat. With a character like him, you live your waking moments suffering under the very fear he thrives on, knowing that your inevitable fate draws irrefutably nearer. When one of Jason’s victims runs senselessly into the woods, you shake your head with derision, but we can all relate to the futile realms of the subconscious, a place where illogical decisions are beyond our control. And Craven was such a master at establishing those dreamworld delineations, seamlessly transitioning from dreams to reality to create a sensory void that is captured through an almost illusory filter.
Freddy Krueger: You are all my children now!
Freddy’s Revenge begins with a dream, a rather effective one involving a runaway school bus, and there are ambiguous fragments of dreams scattered here and there, various allusions to dreams cropping up all over the place, Jesse and Krueger undergoing a physical back-and-forth that is both deeply confusing and utterly implausible, but overall Sholder ditches the concept for the kind of straight-up possession story we’ve seen a dozen times before. In the film, Krueger attempts to return to reality by possessing Jesse’s form. It’s an interesting concept that taps into teenage angst and the process of finding oneself, but one that has always troubled me. Why would Krueger, a sadistic monster whose only desire is to torment children, want to return to reality, a place where he is open to public scrutiny? The beauty of Krueger was his elusiveness, his ability to convince those on the outside that he didn’t exist. That’s exactly how this sadistic villain gets his kicks. Take that away from him and he edges closer to the standard slasher villain that Craven’s creation laid waste to. As director of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors, Chuck Russell, would tell Bloody Disgusting, “I thought in Nightmare 2 Freddy became almost less personable… more of a typical slasher than a dream demon.”
Another omission that really bothered me about Freddy’s Revenge was its decision to ditch Charles Bernstein’s A Nightmare on Elm Street theme. It’s difficult to recall a musical accompaniment that captures the essence of a movie’s villain quite so beautifully. It’s pitch perfect. This is somewhat unfair given that the movie all but abandons the dreamworld concept that the theme represents, and future Hellraiser composer Christopher Young does a fine job in his own right, creating the musical equivalent of hellbound wind chimes stoked by invisible fires, so put this one down to personal preference. This is a perfect example of why comparing one movie with another is a futile endeavour, but for me the film has plenty of problems when free of such comparisons. Freddy’s Revenge is a movie that I desperately want to like, that I sometimes almost appreciate, and every time I come back to it there is a renewed hope that it is perhaps better than I give it credit for, but the fact is I always leave disappointed.
Part of the reason has to do with its blatant implausibility. Jesse is new to Elm Street, his father acquiring the infamous Thompson house on the cheap and failing to inform his family of its gruesome history, though how they remained unaware of one of the strangest, most gruesome acts of mass murderer the US suburbs has ever witnessed it completely beyond me. Inevitably, a spate of disturbances leads Jesse to the family basement, where visions of old fritter face threaten to unravel his sanity. Matters are further exacerbated when love interest, Lisa (Myers), stumbles upon former victim Nancy’s diary, which features some rather familiar tales of razor-fingered stalkery. Since Lisa is a longtime resident of the neighbourhood, Jessie looks to his potential beau for answers, but apparently those infamous murders were ‘before her time’ — a whole year by my reckoning. To be fair, Lisa does mention that Nancy’s diary is five years old, which means that Freddy’s Revenge is set in 1989. Everything looks distinctly mid-80s to me, with very little to distinguish such a leap forward, but okay, I’m just nitpicking here. Soon, Jesse finds himself at the centre of a string of grisly murders as Krueger begins to use him as a conduit into reality, and this is where everything gets just a little messy.
Most mystifying are the alternating roles of Krueger and his transient incubator. Is Jesse dreaming? Is he possessed? When Grady is watching over our protagonist having promised to monitor his dreams, how is he able to witness Freddy emerging from Jesse’s torn carcass? When Krueger replaces Jesse and commences his pool party killing spree, where does the kid disappear to? I mean, what in the hell is going on here? When coach Schneider is found dead, slashed to death in the buff in an act of sexual torture, why is Jesse not a suspect. I mean, the cops did pick him up that very same night, wandering around nude in a semi-catatonic state. You’d think someone would put two and two together. To a lesser degree, the same can be said of Grady’s death. They spent a lot of time together. They were seen scuffling in front of the entire school only days earlier. His parents heard the boy screaming as their son lay dead on the other side of his bedroom door. You’d at least think a round of questioning would be in order.
Lisa Webber: Jesse, help.
Freddy Krueger: There is no Jesse. I’m Jesse now!
Freddy’s Revenge is also wracked with silliness, the kind that detracts from the film’s overall fear factor. I’m all for silliness ― most great horror has at least a hint of humour ― and Freddy’s Revenge has plenty of it in the right places, but when it comes time to scare you need to play it straight, and many of the scares here just aren’t scary. They’re generic, tacked-on and could belong to any number of nondescript horror flicks. With a character like Krueger and a protagonist like Jesse, there’s so much potential. Here we have one of the most terrifying creations in horror movie history, yet much of the movie’s running time is dedicated to ludicrous and deeply uninventive moments that are at odds with the overall tone: a snake in the classroom, a flaming bird, electric fences, exploding sausages ― there’s even a moment when a blast of kitchen-bound lightning strikes the dirty dishes. It’s safe to say I wasn’t exactly reaching for the cushions during that particular moment. The practical effects are hit-and-miss too. There’s an evil cat that looks like it belongs in an episode of slapstick comedy The Young Ones, and a pair of vicious guard dogs with human faces ― not just human faces, baby human faces ― are so utterly ridiculous it’s almost as if they know it. They don’t exactly hunt Lisa down like your typical cinematic hellhounds. They growl a little, but they generally just amble around like their doped to the eyeballs on Xanax.
All of this makes for a rather underwhelming finale. The final showdown between Lisa and Freddy is fairly dark once we get past all the animal-related nonsense, but it’s just as baffling. Though the movie veers away from dreams, its convoluted plot means it often treat events like one. When Krueger deteriorates and Jesse emerges, fully formed, with barely a scratch on him, despite the fact that his flesh has been torn to rags on numerous occasions, its hard to swallow. And there’s no room for ambiguity here. Not unless Lisa was dreaming, Grady was dreaming, coach Schneider was dreaming, the two dozen pool party guests, including Lisa’s parents, were dreaming. And everybody just seems to accept what they see. Perhaps in the far-off future of 1989, unlimited regeneration is commonplace. Much like the original, there is also a sequel-setting epilogue that not only looks ridiculous, it manages to devalue everything that went before. So Jesse and Lisa went through all of that just for Freddy to reappear? The murder of Lisa’s friend, Kerry, happens on a school bus full of witnesses, so at least Jesse has an alibi this time. Unless one of them is dreaming? I’ll leave that one up to you to figure out.
Freddy’s Revenge did strong numbers at the box office, raking in a cool $30,000,000 from an estimated $3,000,000. Again, it’s hardly surprising. The original A Nightmare on Elm Street really connected with horror audiences, and as with any sequel, the Box Office is mostly determined by the film which preceded it. This was a unique concept that demanded further exploration, but that didn’t happen until 1987, when Chuck Russell convinced New Line to flesh out the Krueger character and further explore his dreamworld omnipotence. Fans and critics were underwhelmed by Freddy’s Revenge, and you have to believe that this was more to do with its conceptual digression than its flirtations with teenage homosexuality. “The studio rightfully felt that Nightmare on Elm Street 2 was a bit of a misfire and wanted to get the franchise back on course,” Russell would explain. “In fact, at that point they were uncertain it would continue… I convinced New Line we could do bigger, wilder dream sequences and make Freddy more of a devilish ring master… make it both more frightening and more fun… they took a chance on my vision.”
So does Freddy’s Revenge deserve its cult status? I’d say so. It may be deeply flawed, borderline nonsensical and pretty damn silly at times, but no one can say it isn’t distinctive ― not just as a conceptual anomaly, but due to a rich and storied legacy that continues to fascinate in a way that is unique to the rest of the series. With films that inspire such loyalty, it’s generally all or nothing, and any notion of criticism is sacrilegious to die hard appreciators, which is why it may surprise you to learn that, in spite of my reservations, I do enjoy this movie, someway, somehow. Is it a good film? Far from it. It does have its moments, but all in all it’s a bit of a mess. The thing is, something keeps me coming back. I’ve seen this movie a dozen times, and I’m always just a little underwhelmed by the experience, but that doesn’t stop me reaching for it, semi-catatonic against its neon projection, all the while whispering, ‘why do you do it to yourself?’ It just has that intangible quality. A mystique, if you will. It’s compulsive, sadistic viewing, possessing any soul, body or brain with the gall to reject it. I guess I’m Freddy’s child now.